While credit has to go out to the league for a proactive approach to getting the league back down to a reasonable number of member franchises (currently sitting at 22), the ultimate success of this league is contingent on getting back to a development model that is conducive to young players.
For too many years, the OJHL has been plagued by veteran rosters that have squeezed out talented young players from playing in the league. 16-year-olds have had to pursue other playing avenues which has been a primary catalyst for more Ontario born players leaving to play in the USHL as a 17 or 18-year-old player. A shifting philosophy appears to have a blueprint that will rectify this issue.
OJHL teams now have the ability to carry up to 4 16-year-old players under the new averaging rule. While this rule is easier stated than explained, the important thing to note is that a number of teams have taken advantage of the increased number of underaged players, and thus far, are seeing some strong returns on their investment in youth.
The St. Michael’s Buzzers are a prime example of how 16-year-old players can contribute in the present, and the future. Proven as one of the league’s top development organizations, the Buzzers are carrying 4 96 YOB players on the roster this season: Jake Evans (Kitchener, 8th Round); Jared Walsh (Mississauga, 2nd Round); Joseph Berton (Mississauga, 4th Round); and Greg Allen (Erie, 6th Round).
The Buzzers currently find themselves atop the OJHL standings with 23 points despite having a league high 4 16-year-old players on the roster. And they’re contributing too. Evans, a Notre Dame commit, is tied for 2nd in Team Scoring with 17 points in only 15 games. If he sticks around for his 17-year-old season, he’s the type of player that will bring some NHL exposure back to the league. Walsh, who is by all reports contemplating the proverbial OHL/NCAA decision, is already seeing Top 4 minutes on a nightly basis while Berton and Allen have also both established themselves as regular contributors in the lineup.
For the OJHL to be successful as a development league for the OHL and the NCAA, the league’s franchises need to do a better job of not only committing spots to these types of 16-year-old players, but making a concerted effort to see their development through. While the Buzzers are the model franchise in this regard, several other teams are on the right track as well in 2012-13.
Kris Bennett (Oakville) already has 8 goals and 13 points while teammates Kyle Jenkins (11 points) and Matt Alvaro (7 points) are also quickly establishing themselves as front-line players. In Georgetown, Greyhounds prospect David Miller has 5 points in only 8 games while London Knights defensive prospect Santino Centorame has 5 assists in 12 games.
These are only a handful of the players who probably don’t even know how important their presence is to the OJHL this year. With a redefined operating plan from the league, the OJHL has the ability to get back to its previous perch as one of the top development leagues in North America. Now it’s time for the franchises to find the balance between young players and success instead of hedging their bets on a veteran roster every season.